OTTAWA - The RCMP says it is examining senators' expense claims following an independent audit and pointed reports from the upper chamber's internal economy committee.
But the Mounties stressed Sunday it was too early to know whether they will open a full-fledged investigation into accusations that three senators improperly claimed a housing allowance.
At issue is whether Conservative Mike Duffy, former Conservative Patrick Brazeau and Liberal Mac Harb were truly eligible for the allowance, intended to compensate senators who must maintain a secondary residence in Ottawa.
The matter is currently with the RCMP national division's sensitive and international investigations section, said Sgt. Julie Gagnon, a force spokeswoman.
Based upon an evaluation of the information at hand, the RCMP "may or may not initiate an investigation," she said.
"The RCMP is not in a position to comment further on this specific matter at this time."
Generally, the RCMP would confirm an investigation only in the event that it results in criminal charges, Gagnon said. "Should the investigation not generate sufficient evidence to support the laying of criminal charges, the RCMP would conclude its file."
Confirmation the RCMP is looking into the matter capped days of charged debate, finger-pointing and speculation over the contentious issue of Senate entitlements.
Directed by the Senate's internal economy committee to study the work and travel patterns of the three senators, independent auditor Deloitte concluded Duffy, Brazeau and Harb live primarily in the national capital region, but that the rules governing housing claims were unclear.
Still, the Tory-dominated committee said in the cases of Harb and Brazeau the rules were "amply clear," and that the two senators must pay back the housing allowances they claimed.
Under the rules, senators whose "primary residence" is more than 100 kilometres from the national capital region may claim legitimate travel expenses as well as living expenses while in the capital for Senate business.
The committee's reports on both Brazeau and Harb say that "plainly, if a Senator resides primarily in the (national capital region), he or she should not be claiming living expenses for the (region)."
No such language was used in the committee report on Duffy, which noted he had voluntarily repaid $90,172 in allowance monies.
That led Senate Opposition leader James Cowan to accuse the Conservatives of going easy on Duffy, a high-profile former television journalist appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to represent Prince Edward Island.
Harb listed a home in Westmeath, Ont., northwest of Ottawa, as his chief residence. He has signalled he will go to court to fight an order to reply $51,500, and has resigned from the Liberal caucus in the meantime.
Brazeau, who claimed a primary residence in Maniwaki, Que., was kicked out of the Conservative caucus this year after being charged with assault and sexual assault.
Cowan said Sunday he would welcome an RCMP probe of the housing allowance claims.
"My personal preference is that they do that," the Liberal senator said in an interview.
"I've always felt that, when you have a situation like this and you've got large sums of public money involved, that if it looks like the Senate is simply closing ranks around its own, that that is a difficult concept to sell."
Cowan said members of the public he's heard from are "puzzled and they're angry."
Having said this, he feels the Senate handled the matter appropriately by calling in the external auditors.